In 2013, I’m undertaking the colossal task of seeing and reviewing every single film Sam Neill has acted in or directed. This post is a part of that review series.

1983′s Enigma is perhaps the most “conventional” film so far on the list of Sam Neill’s projects. Based on a cold war spy novel Enigma Sacrifice by Michael Barak, it tells of civilian dissident Alex Holbeck (Martin Sheen) who is recruited by the CIA to infiltrate East Berlin’s Communist headquarters to steal an Enigma encryption machine scrambler, in order to prevent a plot to assassinate a number of Russian ex-spies who have defected. When there, a game of cat and mouse develops between him and a Russian superspy, Dimitri Vasilikov (Sam Neill), who is sent to East Berlin to prevent Alex from succeeding in his plot. To add to the intrigue, all of this must go on without aggravating the already precarious balance between the East and West powers, at the height of the Cold War.

Then we have Karen Reinhardt (Brigitte Fossey, no relation to Dian), Holbeck’s old flame from East Germany, who becomes mixed up when she offers to help Holbeck by getting close to Vasilikov, which results in her loyalties becoming torn.

Martin Sheen as Alex Holbeck in Enigma

From a narrative standpoint, the film is very much a novel adaptation, with a large emphasis on conversational exposition, the literal construction of characters and highly articulate protagonists and antagonists. Adding to that, being a 30 year-old film, its pace often feels almost leisurely for today’s viewers, with the gradual unveiling of the plot’s various, and often inventive, twists and turns.

In the hands of lesser actors, many of these characters could easily be DOA once their intentions become clear to the audience, and even a masterful performer like Derek Jacobi has trouble grappling with a thinly written supporting character, East German spy operative Kurt Limmer. Similarly, Fossey’s Karen is ultimately a slightly disappointing and deferring female character, after some challenging and provocative moments early on. Fossey does well enough with her role, though.

However, both Sheen and Neill manage to bring their opposing forces to life, and with vigor. Martin Sheen is of course a known anti-establishment dissident, and seems to have no trouble at all connecting with his character, an anti-communist who loathes the CIA’s wily methods almost as much as his former oppressors. His portrayal is energetic and convincing without veering into the cynical.

Sam Neill as Dimitri Vasilikov in Enigma

Neill’s Vasilikov is, for the most part, written as a stock “Russian spy”. Quotes like “He played me like a trained bear!” only serve to enhance the feeling that the script is a teeny bit prejudiced towards Russians. However Neill, who is often quoted as “a very professional actor”, makes him perfectly believable which helps the third act immensely, when Holbeck and Vasilikov finally square off directly, each executing their own game of deception.

While the good guy’s motives and intentions are most often very clear and straight-forward (although there are some minor twists here) in films like this, it’s the bad guy who can make or break a film. And the empathy for Vasilikov’s situation, even as the hero is justifiably winning, persists thanks to Neill’s apparently methodical (not Method, mind you) approach, as every one of his motivations and intentions is immediately tangible within the plot. The two lead actors’ conviction to their respective roles then results in the scenes where they actually meet being the film’s unquestionable high points.

Final Verdict: A conventional 80′s spy thriller for the most part, Enigma is a success thanks to great performances by Martin Sheen and Sam Neill, and a plot constructed just well enough to keep you engaged for 90 minutes. With a strong supporting cast to help cover the film’s weakest links, stereotypical and two-dimensional supporting characters in particular, it still remains highly watchable today.


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